How can indie booksellers survive in an Amazon-dominated landscape?

Monographer writes: We are pleased to publish another contribution to our occasional series of guest posts. Today’s post is by Katheryn Rivas, who writes on the topics of online university (www.onlineuniversities.com). She welcomes your comments at her email Id: katherynrivas87@gmail.com.

If you are in the bookselling or publishing business, you are no doubt at least marginally sick and tired of the ongoing conversation regarding Amazon, the supposed bête noir of bookstores and book-lovers everywhere. Of course, there’s no denying the fact that the books-and-other-stuff selling behemoth that is Amazon has employed a model designed to discourage consumers from buying from independent bookstores, sometimes in obviously unsavory ways.

Still, Amazon offers what most indie booksellers, a quickly dying breed, simply can’t—an efficient shopping process, digital alternatives to print, and often drastically lower prices. At a time when the average family’s disposable income is dwindling, should not Amazon and others of its kind be lauded for offering the consumer such easy and affordable access to books? In an incendiary critique of independent bookstores, Slate’s Farhad Manjoo makes this point exactly—that independent bookstores, as they operate now, essentially deserve their fate.

But those of us who enjoy browsing books within the walls of a local, independent bookstore know that there is something of the indie store that is worth preserving, something that extends beyond mere nostalgia. But to secure this preservation, there is no doubt that bookstores must change the way they do business. Here are a few possibilities.

Publishing own titles and becoming truly local

One criticism Manjoo mounts against indies is their dubious claims to community. Manjoo explains: 

There is little that’s ‘local’ about most local bookstores. Unlike a farmers’ market, which connects you with the people who are seasonally and sustainably tending crops within driving distance of your house, an independent bookstore’s shelves don’t have much to do with your community. Sure, every local bookstore promotes local authors, but its bread and butter is the same stuff that Amazon sells—mass-manufactured goods whose intellectual property was produced by one of the major publishing houses in Manhattan.

Traditionally, a book’s production-to-consumption chain has involved several parties—authors, publishers, printers, distributors, and booksellers. Now, in an attempt to differentiate themselves from giant retailers and each other, indie bookstores have begun publishing their own titles in what Salon.com calls “…the literary equivalent of the locavore movement. It not only emphasizes local writers, and local subjects, but also asks residents to support a local business with their dollars. 

Expanding children’s sections

Even if the demand for e-books has increased for adults, a recent New York Times article noted that parents still prefer print books for their children. The article notes:

Children’s books are also a bright spot for brick-and-mortar bookstores, since parents often want to flip through an entire book before buying it, something they usually cannot do with e-book browsing. A study commissioned by HarperCollins in 2010 found that books bought for 3- to 7-year-olds were frequently discovered at a local bookstore — 38 percent of the time.

This presents indie bookstores with an opportunity to market to parents who consider browsing with their children an indispensable part of spending time with family and discovering new books.

Emphasizing the experiential value of physical bookstores

If indie booksellers are to survive, they must not try to compete with giant retailers like Amazon. That is to say, they do not have the resources to do what Amazon does, so they must offer an alternative that Amazon and others can’t—and that’s the experience of going to a bookstore. Organizing a vibrant local author reading series, hosting book clubs for children and adults alike, and developing interesting staff recommendations that are uniquely human and not algorithmically solipsistic are all different ways that independent bookstores can capitalize on the bookstore experience.

Stocking used books in addition to new books

As the saying goes, “It’s the economy, stupid.” In many ways, all priorities take a back seat to the number one priority of cost. Independent bookstores cannot support themselves by offering the rock-bottom prices on new books that Amazon does. But they can offer cheaper alternatives—used books—to appeal to the customer who is primarily driven by discounts. Offering books with lower prices will, if anything, bring in more new customers, many of whom may become loyal patrons in the future.

In the final analysis, independent bookstores will and always have had to scrape to get by. No one, after all, enters the bookselling business solely for the sake of profit. But now, the stakes are higher and business-as-usual is drastically changing. Bookstores must either refashion themselves to remain relevant or else face extinction. 

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13 Responses to “How can indie booksellers survive in an Amazon-dominated landscape?”

  1. Yes. Yes. Yes!

    Local bookstores are a completely different animal than Amazon, or Barnes & Noble/Waterstones/etc.

    My relatively small town has two used book stores, a pitifully small university bookstore that focuses 99% of its inventory on textbooks, and huge chains like Walmart that sell a few bestsellers. The used book stores are the only places I can be more or less sure of finding something interesting, and my favorite one is more of an experience than a get-the-best-price-conveniently Amazon-style experience. There are saggy couches, an eccentric owner, a woodstove, oddly oriented shelves, and so on.

    When I *need* a book, or am severely financially impaired, I will go with Amazon, especially in light of their free shipping deals. When I want to have a pleasant hour or two and maybe find a book, I go to the quirky local. Although, neither are ideal for children’s books — for those I tend to do B&N, simply because they have the right combination of a large selection (which the local doesn’t) and the ability to browse in person(which Amazon doesn’t).

    I’ll never say Amazon is “bad” (predatory tactics aside). It fills a needed and justifiably popular niche in bookselling. Locals need to fill an entirely different niche, and local residents need to support them.

  2. I agree with many of Monographer’s points and suggestions however I view the “local / independent” bookseller to include those of us who don’t have a brick and mortar store but only sell online AND are privately owned, in our case by my wife and I.

    We (Audiobooks Online LLC, http://www.audiobooksonline.com) have been a Web-based merchant of audiobooks since 1994 and currently offer 1000s of titles on cassette, compact disc, and MP3 CD at everyday discounts. We also offer 80,000+ digital audio products and ebooks for children and adults through our affiliation with digital providers.

    To be sure we are challenged everyday to compete with corporate booksellers but we can offer a wide selection of audio books including digital titles at competitive prices.

    • Thank you for your comment. I’m not clear, however, how you feel these arguments apply to your own business (for example, your reference to ‘local’).

      Please note, by the way, these aren’t my points and suggestions. They are those of our guest, Katheryn Rivas. (As we say on the page on guest posts, “Views expressed in guests’ posts are their own – hosting a guest post doesn’t necessarily indicate that Monographer agrees with the content”.

    • Anthony; Parson me for attributing Katheryn Rivas’ comments to you.

      I believe the term “local business” can mean a business in my town, county or even state and believe that some of our Vermont customers consider us “local” even though they connect with us only on the Web.

    • Thank you
      BTW, just wanted to avoid taking Katheryn’s credit!

    • And of course Amazon will quite happily provide their venue for local/independents to sell their inventory, in particular used books. Again, not sure I’d call that a bad thing necessarily.

      As an editor, I would love to help with “locavore” publishing. Seems a win-win for all involved.

  3. That comment about locavore publishing was from me… WordPress seems to struggle keeping me logged in!

    I’m thinking of examples like books on local or state history, ecology, etc. published by university presses. Or, like in the Salon.com article, fiction by local authors with local settings. (http://www.salon.com/2012/01/02/indies_battle_amazon_by_becoming_publishers/singleton/).

    Many commenters on the Amazon v. indie struggle seem to have given up on indie publishing solely from a financial perspective. Of course, financial solvency is a major concern for small booksellers. But is it the only concern? Does it have to be a yes/no proposition?

    There have been many discussions of the other benefits a local book store brings to the community, some of which I mentioned previously — it’s a destination, not simply a store. My local used book store displays and sells local art, has had live music performances, and is a place to while away pleasant hours. Not all of that is directly revenue producing, but that doesn’t mean these things are useless or wasteful. Small-run publishing could be another example.

    Funny thought — I’ve deplored the reduction of book inventory at big chain stores like Barnes & Noble while lauding diversity at local stores. I would say the difference is that the locals diversify without an attendant lowering of inventory.

  4. In looking for new editing clients, I often peruse university press web sites. Aside from the giants (Oxford, Yale, UMich, etc.) who publish in a wide range of disciplines, many smaller university presses focus on local topics. Geology of XYZ state, history of the West/South/etc., and so on.

    A wonderful local example in my region is the potential for a marvelous book on Kittie Wilkins, which could be marketed as local history, women’s studies, and American West studies: http://www.isu.edu/magazine/summer08/horse-queen.shtml.

    There are numerous universities in the region who could publish such a book, using a local author (and hopefully a local editor such as myself!), and market it both regionally and more widely. I could envision local booksellers highlighting such a book at regional events on the Wild West era, for example.

    Maybe I’m naive about the greater realities of the publishing and book selling industries, but it seems there are wonderful opportunities for creativity here.

    • There is some evidence that the ‘word’ industry is experiencing (in muted form, no doubt) a parallel trend to that seen in the music industry – a shift in balance away from revenue from commodities (recorded music) towards live events, which are flourishing. Spoken word events – readings, literary festivals etc. are also growing in popularity. Traditionally, publishers have thought of such events purely as a way to market books – recently there has been the glimmering of a suggestion that they would see author events as integral to the package they offer (“we’ll publish your book and set up events and market you both ways”).

    • Even more evidence that localizing both production and marketing could be a boon to the “industry”, to my mind. Partnering between large companies to do the national/global/online marketing and local entities to do the local/regional marketing, perhaps? Don’t small presses often rely on larger companies to distribute their books already?

  5. My friend at David’s bookshop in the beautiful St Edward’s Passage in Cambridge recently hepped me to http://www.hive.co.uk/about-us/ – it piggybacks the existing book distribution chain so you can order books online, which you collect from your local bookshop without paying any postage. Paying a little postage gets them delivered direct to you. If you click on your bookshop they get a small percentage too.

    This seems like an excellent response to Amazon, who seem quite happy to slit the throats of bookshops and publishers alike.

    I am amazed this service is not better known. I haven’t tried it yet, but will shortly.

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